2023 Ends With Wave of Misinformation, Online Attacks and Scams Across Balkans

At the end of 2023, the Balkans was ensnared in a complex tapestry of digital misdirection, a surge of online attacks targeting women and escalating cyber threats.
In the closing months of 2023, a wave of misinformation gripped North Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, and Turkey. Deceptive political narratives, manipulated charts, and orchestrated propaganda unfolded, shaping the digital landscape.

A surge in online attacks targeting women in Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, and Hungary raised concerns about gender-based violence in the virtual sphere. Serbia’s elections witnessed heightened digital tensions, with both the opposition and far-right parties suffering a defeat amid allegations of orchestrated propaganda networks.

Online scams escalated in Hungary, Bosnia, and Romania, highlighting evolving cyber threats targeting citizens across the Balkans.

Persistent shadow of misinformation across region
Across North Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, and Turkey, a complex tapestry of misinformation wove itself into the fabric of public discourse. From deceptive political tweets to manipulated charts and orchestrated online propaganda, the assault on truth spanned borders, leaving citizens and investigative journalists grappling with a distorted reality.

As the North Macedonian political landscape becomes increasingly digital, misinformation looms large. Dragan Kovacki, an MP for the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, on social media on November 26 posted a misleading tweet accusing the government of overspending on hosting the OSCE meeting. The accompanying photo was not from the event but from a concert in Skopje, however. Meanwhile, a fabricated Facebook post on November 2, falsely attributed to former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, added fuel to the fire of deceit.

Hungary grappled with a different facet of misinformation – data manipulation. On November 16, the pro-government Ripost published a chart on inflation, a masterclass in misleading people, with a headline promising “more income for families”. In reality, the inflation rate hovers at around 10 per cent. Concurrently, a viral video on November 2 depicting a Romanian journalist in Israel faced accusations of fakery, underscoring the consequences of misinformation.

In Romania, the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians, AUR, spun its own complex web of deception. An investigation by Misreport exposed a network of 19 copycat websites amplifying the party’s propaganda and fake content on Meta platforms. In 2023 alone, these platforms reached a staggering 15.7 million users, with the party investing 12,000 euros in Facebook promotions. The narrative intensified with a fresh claim from “national.ro” on November 27, alleging the government was colluding with NATO to destroy the Danube Delta’s ecosystem. Fact-checkers debunked the narrative, highlighting the manipulation inherent in political discourse.

Finally, Turkey on December 3 saw a state institution tasked with countering disinformation being accused of spreading falsehoods. Against the backdrop of Turkish accusations of Israeli genocide in Gaza, journalist Metin Cihan reported the alleged delivery of Turkish military clothing to the Israeli army. Despite supplying clear details of the shipment, the Centre for Countering Disinformation under the Turkish Presidency dismissed the claims as manipulation. This raises critical questions about the reliability of official channels in a country that has made significant strides in its technological and economic development.

Surge in online attacks targeting women
In the interconnected world of cyberspace, a troubling trend has emerged, as women in the Balkans face an increase in online attacks. From insults and threats to explicit content, these attacks transcend political boundaries and have appeared in Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, and Hungary.

In Montenegro the MP Aleksandra Vuković Kuč, from the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, became the target of serial insults and misogynistic speech on social networks on November 30, when she spoked out against the election of Andrija Mandić as head of parliament and questioned his alignment with Russia and denial of genocidal events.

The attack escalated beyond political disagreement as private aspects of her life, including her appearance and pregnancy, become subjects of highly inappropriate commentary. The Basic Prosecutor’s Office intervened – but the incident underscores the broader issue of women facing disproportionate and gender-based attacks in the online space.

In Serbia, on November 21, a self-proclaimed psychologist and theologian, Edin Tule, used social networks to threaten and degrade his own wife. Publishing disturbing videos and making explicit threats not only towards his wife but also towards politicians and other individuals, Tule’s actions underscore the vulnerability women face in the digital realm. Tule’s excuse that the threats were part of an experiment for a book only highlights the need for vigilance against manipulative justifications for online violence.

Albania also saw its share of online misogyny as Monika Kryemadhi, ex-leader of the opposition Partia e Lirisë party, became the subject of offensive comments about her appearance and personal life last December 13. The online media platform GazetaTema published a post about Kryemadhi, attracting commenters who used derogatory language and insinuations about her private life, and about her physical appearance.

In Hungary, the Facebook page of the ruling Fidesz party’s Gödöllő organisation fell victim to a cyber-attack on December 28, flooding the platform with pornographic content. Despite Meta’s artificial intelligence, AI, attempting to block explicit material, the hackers shared videos and images featuring scantily clad women. Such incidents not only compromise the political space but also highlight the potential dangers women face when their images are misused for malicious intent.

Digital tensions and electoral dynamics in Serbia
Amid elections in Serbia on December 17, a political landscape defined by the victory of the incumbent Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, also witnessed a surge in online violations. The moderate opposition “Serbia against Violence” coalition was defeated. Far-right parties, exemplified by the People’s Party, NS, led by Vuk Jeremic, encountered more a decisive defeat. This digital backdrop, marked by escalating online violations, further complicates the fate of these parties as they grapple with internal conflicts and nationalist stances, raising questions about their continued presence in the political sphere.

Before the electoral silence period from December 15, until the polling stations closed on Sunday December 17 at 8pm, parties in Serbia defied traditional norms by shifting their campaigns predominantly to social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. State institutions struggled to implement effective mechanisms to restrict advertising during these crucial pre-election hours.

December 16 saw alleged orchestration of a propaganda network. Lists of purported bots and fake social media accounts emerged, disseminating authoritarian views. This manipulative strategy during an election raised concerns, with 43 per cent of Serbian citizens expressing reluctance to openly share their opinions. Despite BIRODI’s call for an investigation into alleged bot factories, the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime claimed it lacked the jurisdiction to do so, leaving citizens susceptible to organised content manipulation.

On December 20, 2023, Isidora Kovačević, editor of Podrinski, was the target of offensive and threatening messages sent on social media. The messages, received on the Instagram profile “sabacizbori2023”, suggested she would suffer consequences for her statements about the police chief Aleksandar Vilotijević, hinting at such repercussions as peeling potatoes in prison, plus a suggestion to relocate from her city.

Online scams target citizens across Balkans
The Balkans saw another rise in online scams, with fraudsters deploying sophisticated tactics to exploit unsuspecting citizens. On December 25, Hungary faced a cyber threat as scammers, leveraging the identity of state-owned utility provider MVM, sent deceptive emails resembling gas bills. The goal was to trick recipients into divulging their credit card details, emphasizing the need for heightened vigilance against evolving phishing attempts.

In Bosnia, on December 19, UniCredit Bank warned its customers about rising cases of fraud and misuse of payment cards. It said attackers sought confidential user data, including usernames, passwords and card information. Users were advised to stay vigilant and refrain from sharing personal data through any form of online communication.

On November 23, in Romania, a phishing scheme involved Romanian Post. Fraudsters, exploiting the trust associated with postal services, sent SMS messages to victims, falsely claiming they had missed a delivery. The victims were directed to a link where they were asked to provide bank details for a supposed new delivery. Romanian Post emphasized that it never solicits personal data or online payments, underscoring the need for citizens to verify such communications to prevent falling prey to online scams.

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